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This is the "The Piano Lesson" page of the "ENGL&111 Introduction to Literature (Oldham)" guide.
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ENGL&111 Introduction to Literature (Oldham)  

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The Piano Lesson Print Page

Author Background

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Links marked with † require a King County Library System card number.

August Wilson: A timeline, 1945 – 2005. A synopsis of the playwright's life, compiled by Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Theater Critic.

August Wilson. Brief biography in the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.

August Wilson. Somewhat more in-depth description of Wilson's literary career and a list of his major works, including some discussion of the critical reception of his works and a bibliography of secondary material (books and articles about Wilson). Written in 2005, the list of major works does not include his last two plays (Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean).

Aunt Ester's Children: A Century on Stage. August Wilson reflects on the meaning of his work in this article originally published on April 23, 2000, in the New York Times. At that time Wilson had completed eight of the ten plays of his monumental cycle of plays, each one documenting one decade of African American life in the 20th century.

The Ground on Which I Stand. In an address to the Theater Communications Group National Conference on June 26, 1996, August Wilson delivers a powerful defense of African American theatre and the need to support the talent it contains. Published in American Theatre in September, 1996.

On Listening. A short interview with August Wilson that appeared in American Theatre in April 1996, in which he describes his writing process and some of his background and influences.

Blues, History, and Dramaturgy: An Interview with August Wilson. This is a long, wide-ranging interview in which the playwright discusses many of his plays and the ideas behind them, and describes his writing process in detail. Originally published in African American Review, Winter 1993.


Analysis and Criticism

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The Piano Lesson. A detailed overview of the play from Drama for Students that includes author biography, plot summary, characters, themes, style, historical context, critical overview, criticism, sources, and suggestions for further reading. Probably the best single source for basic background information about the play.

Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the Representation of Black American History. from May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. This scholarly article discusses the play's connection to African traditions that make the ancestors central to the life of the community, and relates it to Wilson's attempt to portray the specifically African qualities of his African American characters. Probably the best of the scholarly articles I've linked to here.

Introduction to August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. In this introduction to a book-length study of Wilson's plays, the author discusses Wilson's interest in "the effects of separation, migration, and reunion" on Black families, and the importance of African American music, particularly the blues, in his plays. It also makes the crucial observation that for Wilson, "the solutions for the future lie in the past." It is a general overview of all the plays but does touch on The Piano Lesson in places.

* Call and Response: Parallel "Slave Narratives" in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. This is an in-depth scholarly analysis of The Piano Lesson, arguing that it is structured as a multi-part interaction between different slave narratives, one a narrative of actual slaves and the other the story of Boy Willie, which the author describes as a metaphorical slave narrative, using the technique of call-and-response from African American and African musical forms.

* "We's the Leftovers": Whiteness as Economic Power and Exploitation in August Wilson's Twentieth-Century Cycle of Plays. A scholarly article that examines how Wilson uses white characters in his plays to illustrate the imbalance of power between blacks and whites. Includes a substantial discussion of The Piano Lesson.


Historical Context

This box contains links to articles on several aspects of the play's historical context, including the Great Migration, sharecropping and debt peonage, prison labor, the history of African American music (particularly the blues), and other topics.

Links marked with a * require a Shoreline email account name and password to access from off campus.

Links marked with † require a King County Library System card number.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration was the historic movement of African Americans out of the South, where slavery had existed up until the end of the Civil War (1865) to the Northern states, roughly from World War I to the Depression (1916 to the 1930s). This is part of the context for The Piano Lesson, which is set in Pittsburgh but in which all of the characters have connections to an earlier family home in the South.

Note: The term "Great Migration" is used to refer to several different phenomena in history. The links here all describe the movement of Black Americans from the South to the North in the early 20th century. If you do independent research on this topic, make sure you are looking at documents that are describing this phenomenon, not another "Great Migration."

The Great Migration is an article from the Encyclopedia of African American Society that gives a good overview of the topic.

Great Migration, from the Encyclopedia of War and American Society, takes a somewhat broader view of the topic, placing it between World War I and 1970, and offers a little more detail about the process.

Great Migration, 1910-1920, from the Gale Encyclopedia of US Economic History. While this short article mostly repeats information found in the two above, the final section on lynching and race riots provides useful information on the endemic violence of the period.

Jim Crow, from the Encyclopedia of African American Society, gives a good overview of Jim Crow. Jim Crow is the informal name for the system of legal segregation that dominated southern states from the end of the Civil War to the 1960s.

* A Transplant that Did Not Take: August Wilson's Views on the Great Migration. Though the article focuses on two of Wilson's other plays, the opening provides a good introduction to Wilson's thinking on this topic and the way it shapes the context for the play.

Sharecropping and Debt Peonage

Briefly, sharecropping is a system in which the owner of the land hires someone else to farm it and pays them a share of the crop (hence the name), after deducting the cost of seed, tools, and other supplies. Historically sharecropping often had the effect of keeping the farmer in debt, especially when combined with fraud and deception practiced against African American farmers by White land owners. "Debt peonage" means the condition of permanent debt that kept tenant farmers or sharecroppers permanently tied to the owner's property, almost like serfs in the Middle Ages who were forbidden by law to move off the noble's land.

In The Piano Lesson Boy Willie's desire to own his own land is motivated to a large extent by his family's experience of debt peonage.

Debt Peonage, from the Encyclopedia of African American Society, gives a good overview of the system.

Peonage, from the Dictionary of American History, gives a very brief description that also includes some of the larger historical and legal context.

Peonage, from the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, gives a slightly longer overview with an emphasis on the legal history.

Sharecropping and Tenant Farming, from the UXL Encyclopedia of US History, explains the difference between these two systems of farming.

Prison Labor

The prison labor contract system, also known as the convict lease system, allowed private individuals to lease the labor of prisoners from the state, for use in private business. This system was widely used in the South after slavery as a way of re-imposing control over African Americans and their labor. Frequently men were arrested on trumped-up charges, or given extreme sentences for trivial offenses, as a way of forcing them to work for white farm and business owners for free. The prisons were horrific, including extreme brutality, utter lack of medical care, and filthy living conditions.

The play includes a number of references to Parchman Farm. Although Parchman Farm was a state prison intended as an alternative to convict leasing, it reproduced many of the same evils as convict leasing.

When Boy Willie starts singing "Bertha" and the other men join in, they are remembering their experiences as convicts working on Parchman Farm.

Convict Lease System, from the Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities. This article provides a good overview of the topic, including its history and its use in the South after slavery. The most relevant sections for our purposes are "Relationship between Slavery and Convict Leasing" and "Leasing, Capitalism, and Violence."

Parchman Farm, Mississippi State Penitentiary, from the Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities. This article describes the history of the farm up to the early 2000s, including a section on how the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement helped expose abuses at the farm.

Plantation Prisons, from the Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities. Gives a good overview of the entire system of plantation prisons, of which Parchman Farm was one.


Music is an important part of this play, which is only fitting for a work titled The Piano Lesson. The music the characters play and sing is rooted in African American traditions of work songs, worship songs, dance music, and other forms. All of this fed into the blues, which became the basis for much American popular music throughout the century, including ragtime, swing, bebop, gospel, rock, bluegrass, country, funk, soul, r&b, and hiphop.

Prison Music, from the Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities.This article gives an overview of the role of music in prisons, with particular attention to the circumstances in which songs like "Berta," which the men sing during Act One, were created and performed.

Work Songs, from the Encyclopedia of African-American Society. A brief description of the social and cultural context of songs like "Berta."

The Blues, from the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. A detailed discussion, with an emphasis on form and history, including references to numerous performers.

Blues, from the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. A briefer overview, emphasizing the roots of the blues in African music and its influence on later forms.

Blues, from the Encyclopedia of Black Studies. This article also gives a good overview of the topic, with an emphasis on cultural continuity from Africa and the cultural and philosophical significance of the blues.


Related Links

Here are some links to related topics that provide further context and background for the play.

Piano Lesson, by the African American painter Romare Bearden. This painting, now housed at the National Gallery of Art, was the inspiration for Wilson's play.

The ten plays of the Pittsburgh cycle. Brief summaries and a critical appreciation by a theater critic writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh was Wilson's home town; he is famous for this series of ten plays documenting the entire twentieth century in the life of an African American community, one play per decade.

Map of Wilson's Pittsburgh neighborhood. The ten plays of the Pittsburgh cycle are set in a fictional neighborhood based on Wilson's own childhood community. This map from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette labels some of the likely locations of his plays and briefly discusses the geography of Wilson's fictional universe. (Note: The links on the map do not work. You can fix them if you're willing to do a little work, by copying the URL, replacing "www" with "old," and then pasting the new link into your browser. It's a clumsy fix, though, because the links are all javascript pop-up windows and require a little editing to get to the actual URL. I've written the Post-Gazette about it and will update the link if and when they fix it.)


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